Welcome to Jenny Savill today. She’s a senior literary agent at Andrew Nurnburg Associates and the judge for the First Chapter Competition in June 2016. So I asked her some probing questions on how you can impress her with your submissions.
Jenny, when you receive a 3 chapter submission what gets you excited enough to then ask for the full MS?
An opening scene or thought that draws me in – and then keeps me engaged as I read on. A sense that the author knows exactly what they are doing, and where the story is going, and so is inviting me, the reader, along for the ride. A clear and authentic voice, a freshness to the writing, a lack of cliché or artifice. I want to feel as if I haven’t seen this before. If, by the end of the three chapters, I am fully, utterly engaged with the story, I care loads about the characters and I absolutely want to know what happens next and where the author will take the story – and I can see where it will fit in the marketplace – I will request the full ms.
Writers repeatedly hear from agents they submit to that you like it but you didn’t love it enough, how does a MS make you love it when you have requested and read the whole thing?
This is a personal, subjective thing. There is no magical element that will make every agent love every manuscript. For me, if I don’t love a manuscript it’s probably because certain elements are not working – and that means that all the elements that I need to be working together are not. For instance, there may be a great premise, but the writing lets it down. There may be a really sympathetic main character, but the author hasn’t understood the best way to write about that character for their chosen market. There may be a sound plot, but written in a voice that doesn’t ring true to me. Perhaps all the elements – voice, plot, character, concept and style are working, but there’s that freshness missing which would make the manuscript really stand out. Remember – agents submit too…
When reading the shortlisted first chapters for this competition what’s going to make a story stand out for you?
All of the above in question 1. I want to be invited in to the story – gently or less gently – it doesn’t matter, but I want my interest to be piqued and then sustained. I want to engage. There doesn’t have to be fireworks on the first page – you can start quietly and build, as long as there is something that hooks the reader from the start. My advice would be to put your writing away for a month, then go back to them and try to read them as a reader, rather than a writer.
What do you feel? Is your attention wandering? What did you mean to convey by that scene, or that phrase, or that word? Do you still need that? How is the tension building? Can you show, rather than tell that bit of information? Is that really the best place to start that chapter? To start the book? Do you need the Prologue? Do you need that many characters? Is it told in the right tense? Is first person best or should you try third? Have you told the reader too much (make the reader do some work – fill in the gaps, imagine – make them active – that’s one of the ways you engage them.) Have you told them too little? Will the reader struggle to orientate themselves within the story? Have you built the world sufficiently? What can you achieve with the slightest of brush strokes?
What types of writers and novels are you looking for to build your list?
I am looking for writers of fiction and non-fiction for children 7+, 8-12, Young Adult and for Adults.
My sweet spot is a really cracking ghost story for any age. My favourite book about ghosts ever (apart from THIRTEEN DAYS OF MIDNIGHT by Leo Hunt) is THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman (which is also, incidentally, a manual for bringing up children). I love books like that that you think are one thing, but are also another. I’m in the market for contemporary stories, as well as historical ones. I’m not into other-world fantasy. Please, no orcs. I am, however, hugely interested in a thread of magic or a speculative twist in an otherwise our-world story.
I’d love to find something written in verse, or in a way that is unusual in some sense. I’m interested to read stories told in the voice of someone who wouldn’t normally be heard – be that the author or the character. All of this also applies when I’m looking at submissions. I’m in the market for commercial and also literary fiction, women’s fiction, speculative fiction, books with magic in them, books that move, surprise and engage me. I’d love to find a novel set in Britain just after the Second World War, or in the 1950’s. I am not looking for high fantasy writing, or indeed other world sci fi, although I am interested in stories set recognisably in our world but slightly in the future – such as Deborah Install’s A ROBOT IN THE GARDEN. She’s an author who has taken domestic life and twisted it playfully into something else. Be brave – play with your themes and see where that takes you… I’m also looking for a memoir with a strong hook.
When you’re reading for pleasure not work, who are your favourite authors?
Emma Healey, Antonia Hodgson, Gillian Flynn, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Adam Thorpe, Andrew Miller, AS Byatt, Patricia Wentworth, Harper Lee, Diana Athill.
Many thanks for this insight into your literary agent world and mind, Jenny.
If you’d like the chance of having your submission reviewed by Jenny and receiving detailed feedback on it then you have until 30th June 2016 to enter the competition. You can find out more about it here.